By Sandra Stewart
Sexy sustainability. You always put those two words together, right?
Stop laughing. Sustainability is a lot of things, but for most of us, sexy isn’t one of them. That needs to change.
Polls consistently find that people want products and services to have sustainable attributes, and they plan to buy them. Just as consistently, actual purchases don’t match up with stated intentions. There are plenty of reasons for this disconnect, ranging from how much people know to how much people care. But marketing is surely part of the problem, and it may be the easiest part to address.
Marketers typically present sustainability in do-the-right-thing terms, as an afterthought or not at all (figuring, it’s not a motivator, so let’s not talk about it). Those approaches aren’t doing the job: If decades of id-targeted advertising have taught us anything, it’s that virtue doesn’t sell. And if we don’t talk about sustainability, we can’t get people to buy into it — unconscious sustainable purchases are not going to accelerate the shift to a new economy.
We need to make sustainability sexy. Not underwear-model sexy, but magnetically attractive. At Thinkshift, we’ve been working on cracking the code for sexy sustainability marketing — the DNA of an “I want that” or “I want to do that” reaction. We’re calling it (provisionally) the HELIX code: Humor, Emotion (or Empathy), Looks, Intelligence and the X factor. Marketing that’s sexy has at least one of these elements, and usually more.
So — humor is good. And we’re not just talking about jokes. Whimsy counts, too, along with wryness, silliness and general playfulness (think: “Solar Freakin’ Roadways” or Chipotle’s "Farmed and Dangerous”). Humor in marketing is tricky. But if you really know your audience, you can find a way to amuse them that will grab their attention and open them up to your message.
There are plenty of ways tap into emotions, including storytelling, demonstrating empathy for your audience’s problems, and appealing to people’s aspiration and self-image. Just do it.
Looks do matter, from beginning to end — not just in product design, but also in every graphic expression of the company’s identity. For growth companies, this is not a place to cut corners. It can’t be lipstick on a pig, either — susty products often have superior functionality, and they should show it off. A good example: Plum Organics baby food pouches are less resource-intensive than glass jars, but their light, bright, no-spill and self-feeding qualities are what make them irresistible to busy parents.
There’s always a way to get to the core of genius. Marketers should work at this for as long as it takes. You’ll know you’ve succeeded when people instantly see what’s smart about your offering — and feel smart for wanting it.
If we can’t define it, how can we pursue it? One way is to draw on symbols and schema that already have the X factor because of the cultural associations they carry. Another is to overturn expectations. Case in point: When the iPhone was introduced, we didn’t think we needed to carry a computer in our pocket — but we wanted it. This isn’t just about newness (plenty of new things fail), but about a mysterious sense of wonder.
Image credit: Pixabay
Sandra Stewart is a principal of San Francisco–based Thinkshift Communications, a Certified B Corp and California public benefit corporation that helps sustainable businesses and cleantech companies boost brand value through compelling brand stories and thought leadership positioning. Follow her @thinkshift and connect on LinkedIn.